"To the best of our knowledge, this is the first direct evidence that overexpression of a microRNA results in the development of a neoplastic disease, highlighting their potential role in human malignancies," says Carlo Croce, director of Ohio State's Human Cancer Genetics Program and professor and chair of the department of molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics.
Over the past several years, scientists have discovered hundreds of microRNAs (miRNAs) and how they regulate gene expression basically, by blocking messenger RNA's instructions for protein production. MiRNAs normally help control important biological functions by switching "on" and "off" at different times during cell growth, death, development and differentiation. They can be harmful, though, if they are activated at the wrong time in the wrong place, and that appears to be what happens in some forms of cancer.
The study is published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Croce, the senior author of the study and the first to identify a link between miRNAs and cancer, suspected that a particular miRNA, miR155, was a key culprit in some forms of malignant growth. He and his colleagues have been mapping the activity of dozens of miRNAs in various types of normal and malignant tissues for several years. Earlier studies showed that miR155 was unusually active in some types of leukemia and lymphoma, and that its presence indicated a poorer prognosis in patients with breast and lung cancers.